3 Things that My High School Spanish Class Didn’t Prepare Me For

Here in San José, Costa Rica, I love the bustle of people and cars, the full trees peppered between buildings downtown, and the smells of gallo pinto floating around my neighborhood. It feels like paradise, but there’s one challenge: speaking the language.

The forest surrounding La Fortuna, an ISA excursion destination near Volcano Arenal!

In high school, Spanish was my favorite subject by far. My teachers prepared us for all of our exams and pop quizzes, but there were some things outside the classroom that I think we skipped. Now that I’m in San José, there are three things I’d like to go back and ask my teachers about.

The Two Versions of Spanish

There are two kinds of Spanish: classroom Spanish and everyday Spanish. Classroom Spanish comes wrapped in an (expensive) textbook, complete with color-coded charts and cartoon drawings to help with vocabulary. Classroom Spanish is very helpful, but everyday Spanish is more complex.

You’re familiar with, “Hola, amigo,” but what are you supposed to say if someone yells, “Pura vida, mae!” across a busy Avenida Central in downtown San José? Sometimes, you won’t be able to find a color-coded conjugation chart, and there won’t be a cartoon drawing available to define a new word. It can be overwhelming, but I’m sure that my teacher would say that it’s all a part of the learning process.

A valley in La Fortuna, Costa Rica that is even more perfect than the Windows XP default wallpaper.

The Pressure

I guarantee you that using a second language with natives will put you, in the words of Queen and David Bowie, “under pressure.” Last week, I had to go to Laboratorio San José, a great clinic near my university, Universidad Veritas, for a personal health question.

I went by myself—neither my Costa Rican program advisor nor my host mom were nearby for “backup”. I was shaking in my stained Adidas sneakers. The receptionist began with a short list of questions, but between me asking, “¿Perdón?” and him repeating the questions, it took about 10 minutes to even check in. It was nerve-wracking to be put on the spot to answer questions about something like my health.

It felt like Queen and David Bowie wrote their song about my clinic visit.

A stunning sunset at Playa Punta Leona. Even more beautiful in person!

The Self-Doubt

Several days ago, my roommate and I visited Sencha Tea Bar (highly recommended) to grab Boba tea. On the way to the café, the taxi driver asked about where to drop us off, but I didn’t understand, so I was almost dropped off at the wrong place. When I arrived at Sencha, the cashier greeted me in Spanish. I didn’t understand, so she immediately passed me to the worker that spoke English.

I’m a Spanish major and Spanish tutor, and I’ve been studying it for almost 6 years; I shouldn’t have been struggling that much with Spanish, right? I thought to myself, “Maybe I don’t deserve to be a Spanish tutor. What if I’m a bad Spanish student?”

I’ve experienced an unexpected psychological side to using my second language. Everything centers around leaving my comfort zone. “Vulnerable” is a perfect word to describe what it’s like. You’re putting yourself out there amid the pressure, fear of failure, self-doubt, and a slew of other emotions. Vulnerability is challenging, but I found that it can be so rewarding.

Yes, I’ve stumbled through many conversations, and I get confused when I go out by myself. But you know what? I got through it! I figured out what “Pura vida, mae” means (“What’s up, bro?”), I survived the clinic, and I enjoyed an amazing brown sugar boba tea with my roommate at the mall. I did it, and you can too.

Even though class can only prepare you for so much, there is so much to learn and accomplish outside your comfort zone. And with ISA’s coordinators and all of your new friends, you’ll have plenty of support. Queen and David Bowie would be very proud of you, and I will too!

One of the flowers I found in the white sand at Playa Punta Leona – another ISA excursion destination!

Ahavah Warr is a student at University of North Carolina – Wilmington and an ISA Featured Blogger and is studying abroad with ISA in San José, Costa Rica.

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